Jia, G., Aaronson, D., Wu, Y. (2002). Long-term language attainment of bilingual immigrants: Predictive variables and language group differences. Applied Psycholinguistics, 23, 599-621.
This article presents a study in which the long-term attainment of a second language, specifically factors relating to long-term L2 decline, was explored. The study sought to answer four main questions: 1) Given long-term L2 attainment decline versus long-term L1 increase, which aspects of language proficiency and to which bilingual groups can the findings be generalized; 2) what are the mechanisms leading to the switching or maintenance of dominant language between young and older arrivals; 3) what environmental or affective variables might be involved; 4) are their differences apparent in other groups previously studied, namely Chinese-English and Spanish-English, and are there additional social or cultural variables influencing differences in attainment between bilingual groups above and beyond language distance. To answer these questions, the study 1) investigated grammatical proficiency of 44 Mandarin-English speakers to investigate the relationship between long-term L1 and L2 attainment; 2) using a language background questionnaire, explored additional social, environmental, and affective variables; 3) collected normative data on L1 proficiency for Mandarin monolinguals between the ages of 9-16 to compare relative L1 proficiency between bilinguals and their monolingual counterparts; and finally, 4) gathered data on long-term L2 attainment of other groups to examine generalizability of results to other bilingual groups (specifically, Korean- Mandarin- Cantonese-English and European English bilinguals).
In the initial study, participants were presented with a listening and a reading task designed to assess judgments about grammaticality of sentences. Each task was presented in both English and Mandarin. Judgments in English included morphology (past tense, plurals, third person, present/past progressive, etc.) and syntax (articles, predicate structures, particle movement, pronominalization, etc.). Judgments in Mandarin included word order, inappropriate insertion of words, and inappropriate omission of words. Both grammatically correct and incorrect sentences were presented. Results showed younger AoA was associated with higher accuracy on the English listening and reading task and lower accuracy on the Mandarin listening task. There was also a negative correlation, such that better performance on L2 was associated with poorer performance on L1. Higher performance was also associated with self-report ratings of proficiency in both L1 and L2. This study also assessed environmental and cultural variables. Higher performance on the English listening and reading tasks was associated with younger AoA and more years of education in the U.S., but not length of time in the U.S. Better performance on the English listening task was associated with with more frequent usage at home, as well as more people speaking English at home. Better performance on the Mandarin task was associated with less frequent usage of English, and less people speaking English, at home. The variance between L1 and L2 proficiency was also associated with the level of the speaker’s mother’s proficiency in English, such that the more proficient the mother is in speaking English, the more proficient the children are. Looking at the normative data for comparable level of proficiency in Mandarin between bilinguals and Mandarin monolinguals, the bilinguals tended to arrive with less than adult proficiency in Mandarin. The authors suggest future studies should examine whether level of L1 proficiency in early learners has an effect on L2 acquisition.
Examining the generalizability of these results with other bilinguals, Asian language speakers evidenced stronger AoA effects and significantly lower accuracy on the listening and reading tasks than European language bilinguals. This finding is in line with the proposals of Hernandez and Li, wherein the lexical difference between L1 and L2 influences levels of lexical attainment, as is evident in greater AoA effects in Chinese-English bilinguals than in Spanish-English bilinguals.
In general, the results of this study show individuals who immigrate at a young age tend to switch dominant languages from L1 (Mandarin) to L2 (English), whereas older immigrants tend to maintain their dominant language. However, the maintenance of L1 as the dominant language was influenced by the extent to which English was spoken at home. This suggests it is not merely AoA effects on the ability to acquire the lexical aspects of L2 that prevents greater L2 attainment, but perhaps a combination of factors, including the extent to which the “language of life” is expressed in L2 rather than L1. Thinking back to Harris, Gleason, and Aycicegi (2006), it would be interested to see the extent to which a late learner who is immersed in the L2 language and culture, such as being married to a native speaker, would have less difficulty detecting grammatical errors than a late learner who remained in a household where L2 and accompanying cultural practices were intact. However, this again makes me think of my own step-mother, who would very likely have great difficulty detecting all the grammatical errors in a listening task. If she performed poorly on the tasks in this study, one could assume AoA effects in her ability to acquire English are present to a large extent. She is an individual who speaks L2 to her husband, her children, her step-children, her coworkers, and her friends on a daily basis – in other words, her language of life has been English for the last 25 years of her life. The only remaining contact she has with L1 is in conversations with her sisters. Despite the length of time she has been in the U.S. and living in an English speaking household, she is less than proficient in her ability to speak English, particularly in her pronunciation of English words which, according to this study, would have resulted in lower attainment by her eldest daughter, which did not prove to be the case. However, her eldest daughter was only six when she arrived, and was less than proficient in Vietnamese. Her daughter’s superior attainment of English (such that she sounds no different than a native speaker) fits with the conclusions of this study that younger immigrants tend acquire L2 to a higher proficiency and even switch dominant languages from L1 to L2, and perhaps her younger age of arrival cancels out the effects of her mother’s lower language proficiency.
In sum, this study, by focusing on differences in grammatical ability, lends support to the proposal by Hernandez and Li (2007) that perhaps AoA effects are the result of a critical period for sensorimotor processing, which in turn affects the ability to discern lexical differences between L1 and L2, and therefore affects grammatical accuracy and attainment in L2. It would be interesting to see further studies of late learners, in which differences in environmental and social factors and their relationship to overall L2 attainment are explored.